Guacamole 61 is right in the heart of the whimsically named Epicurious Garden, Gourmet Ghetto's food court. It is a place that can seem all too precious, with its frolicking children clutching artisanal cones full of Lush Gelato, murmuring water fountain, and modern garden. And it can be a tough place to establish oneself, too — with Chez Panisse, the Cheese Board, and other heavies nearby. The neighborhood has unusually high standards when it comes to food. But Guacamole 61 will do just fine there, partly because its taco-truck mainstays are staunchly authentic, with its huge portions and carefully crafted meats, and partly because every neighborhood can benefit from some good Mexican food.
Guacamole 61 manages to satisfy the expectations of North Berkeley's families and tourists, while remaining gutsy and unaffected. Its owner, Guillermo "Willy" Perez, knows the area well. A Berkeley High grad, Perez cut his teeth at the Cheeseboard across the street before he opened Sliver Pizzeria in downtown Berkeley with other Cheese Board alumni.
While Sliver is very much a kissing cousin to the Cheeseboard — down to the live music, the green sauce, and the daily changing menu of vegetarian, sourdough pizzas — Guacamole 61 has its own straightforward personality.
The restaurant is named after Perez's avocado-green 1961 Chevy Impala, so Perez and chef Gustavo Orozco created a similarly masculine and flashy truck-style menu to match. Some of the food is delivered in the hefty portions one finds at taco trucks in Fruitvale, or a place like Juan's in West Berkeley, where lifting the burning hot plates can be a wrist workout. And there's an unusually large amount of zingy pineapple going on — it's in the al pastor, in the agua fresca, and in the Hawaiian-style torta with grilled ham. Flash? Check. Surprisingly, despite the size of its tortas, fries, and even its salad, Guacamole 61's food doesn't feel gluttonous to eat. The dishes express a muscle car's manliness with more than a dash of grace.
I've yet to find a meat option there that didn't seem doted on. But it's worth making a beeline for the al pastor, made fresh every day with pineapple and chilies. It was sweet from the use of fruit, but not overpoweringly so, with a mellow, pervasive heat, and it sparkled with bright pops of pineapple. The slightly sticky sauce coated the tender pork, nicely crisped, and pineapple slivers became chewy after its final treatment on the grill.
Also worth trying was the homey, tender barbacoa, and the carne asada, which was chopped fine, and had wonderfully crispy, caramelized edges. The carnitas was "pigfection!" as one of my lunch companions said — tender, not too salty or greasy, and intensely porky. In some places, it had been shredded into almost hair-like tangles that had deeply browned on the grill.
I'm considering just getting the platos next time I stop in, in order to eat these meats in their unadorned splendor, but the best way to plunge into this meaty motherlode the first time around is to get the ten-dollar street taco plate sampler. Five different tacos are served with a bit of white onion, cilantro, salsa, and decent handmade tortillas — I could taste the masa's sweetness, but they lacked the metallic tang I personally favor.
Tortas are also a thing to get here. They are large enough to marvel at — large enough, also, to consider eating just half, if you're alone. Mine was like a football-shaped pillow, soft and easy to bite through, toasted on both sides and with just enough crema to marry the flavors of meat, grilled onions, refried beans, and crisp lettuce.
The "Guac 61" will go straight to the heart and the arteries of the pig-passionate, but it will be worth it. With three slices of grilled ham, a snappy-skinned sweet sausage (split in half and grilled), and barbacoa, I could taste every meat singularly on my tongue. And the insertion of chewy-crispy, bubbly, fried cheese wasn't overkill in my book.
The lavishly filled Dia de Daryoush was another beautifully structured dish. Orozco sequestered the Monterey cheese mainly to the flour tortilla's crease, leaving room for the expression of the taqueria's pineapple al pastor and dollops of guacamole. Crisp lettuce wound its way down the middle. Sometimes, the earthy chili of the al pastor prevailed. Other times, the cilantro popped. The whole of the tortilla was toasted, crisp, and cracked. It was grandiose, but the ingredients intertwined beautifully, with every component getting its chance to shine on the palate.
Nowadays it seems like many food trucks will unceremoniously pile whatever's on hand on top of a plate of fries for an easy, thoughtless entrée, but there was a level of skill observable on Guac 61's nacho-topped fries. All the ingredients — refried beans, cheese, crema, and for me, more of the al pastor — worked nicely together. There's something utterly luscious about French fries that tast palpably of potatoes and peanut oil, laced with pork drippings, and occasionally squishy with refried beans.
I never felt like I overdosed on richness, even with those dishes that seemed to promise it. But Guacamole 61 occasionally faltered. The watermelon mint agua fresca had too much of the mint's bitter note, as if it had been steeped too long. The tortillas used for the street tacos, though fresh and soft when I've ordered them during the lunch rush, were dry on the edges on the occasions when I ordered them in the slow hours between lunch and dinner. And though I found the vegetarian options well-prepared, fresh, and flavorful, none of those options seemed as interesting or as well-conceived as the meatier offerings. The street corn, densely coated in queso seco, seemed too heavily slathered with red sauce. The vegetarian enchiladas, stuffed with corn, zucchini, and chile pasilla, were decent but not particularly interesting, with the cheese overwhelming the more delicate flavor of the vegetables. Of the vegetarian dishes I tried, the Mexican salad was the most satisfying — rich with crema, avocado, and corn kernels that were crisp, only lightly cooked.
Guacamole 61 has a strong identity — heart and swagger — that makes its food stand out, even in the wealth of options in North Berkeley. And Perez told me that there's more to come: The outfit is currently working on a torta milanesa, with carne asada dipped in flour and fried. Sound like too much? I doubt it will be. It sounds exactly like the over-the-top dish Guacamole 61 can do with ease.
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